There is a sadness and quiet strength on the faces of the Mexican people this week, as they grapple to comprehend and overcome the oppression and destruction of a major earthquake. Unfortunately, Mexico has a long history of unjust hardship as it struggles for a better life. Nowhere is this better represented than in the art of the Mexican muralist movement.
Following the Mexican revolution, the newborn government commissioned epic murals on walls of highly visible public buildings to communicate their progressive message, and educate the mostly illiterate masses about the history of Mexico. Thanks to the Mexican muralist movement, art was no longer the private possession of the rich, but free to view for all.
My own mural viewing began at the former college of San Ildefonso, the birthplace of the Mexican muralist movement. Here, murals fill the stairwells and walls of the three arcaded floors. Notably, twenty of the murals were painted by José Clemente Orozco. Orozco employed distorted human figures to emphasize human suffering and the horrors of war.
Orozco was the oldest and most complex of the Big Three (Los Tres Grandes). The other two “great ones” were David Alfaro Siqueiros, and the most famous Mexican artist of the 20th century Diego Rivera. To compare their works, I visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where representative murals by all three stood side-by-side across its elegant art deco walls.
The most recognizable of the Bellas Artes murals is Diego Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe”, possibly his most famous work. In his hopeful and traditional painting style, Rivera depicts the emergence of man in control of a new scientific and industrial age.
David Siqueiros used sinewy human figures and a futuristic style in his Bellas Artes murals “New Democracy” and the“Torment and Apotheosis of Cuahtémoc”. Although the Big Three were all communists, Siqueiros was the most dedicated and radical.
To try to better understand Siqueiros’ message, I visited the Polyforum Siqueiros to see his most famous work, “The March of Humanity”. Considered the world’s largest mural, the interior and exterior of the 12-sided building is completely covered in a single unified piece of art.
A fusion of architecture, painting, and sculpture, the space inside the Polyforum, looked to me like a fun house under a giant circus tent. Amidst the bizarre psychedelic symbolism, Siqueiros shows humanity’s struggles and search for a better society.
Also depicting the hardships of the Mexican people and a hopefulness for the future, Diego Rivera expertly illustrated the history of Mexico in his murals. A prime example is his “Epic of the Mexican People” filling the stairwell of the National Palace.
Nearby, in the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, Rivera includes hundreds of portraits from 400 years of Mexican history in his “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central”. From Cortés to Rivera himself, the huge mural is a panoramic picture of key figures in Mexico’s history.
I concluded my tour of Mexico City’s murals at UNAM, the country’s most prestigious university. On campus, under the 1968 Olympic cauldron, Diego Rivera began his most ambitious mural. Intending to decorate the entire exterior of the stadium bowl, he was only able to complete the first panel.
Of all the murals that I found in Mexico City, my favorite is located just across the street from the Olympic Stadium. Completed entirely in a mosaic of naturally colored stones from around Mexico, the 10-story university library mural is the work of Juan O’Gorman.
Although not recognized as one of the Big Three, O’Gorman used the muralist medium to create his own narrative history of Mexico. From its pre-Hispanic roots through Spanish colonization and the modern age, this mighty mural, like the horrific events of this week’s major earthquake, capture Mexico’s long history of unjust hardship and its struggles for a better life.